Wimsatt & Beardsley: The intentional fallacy

Back in 1946, two gentlemen named Wimsatt and Beardsley published a short text on literary criticism. Its title, designed to draw readers as well as perhaps spark the sort of mild controversy that only literary critics can muster, was the Intentional Fallacy. These words were chosen with care, so as to pinpoint exactly where the contentious issue is to be found. There is a fallacy, increasingly common, and it has to do with intention. Specifically, critics spent too much time focusing on whether an author intended this or that, making cases either way using the critical tools at hand. This in itself is not the problem – such cases can be made, and they can be made well, in ways that illumine the analyzed works in interesting and useful manners. The fallacy consists not in caring what an author may or may not have intended, but of making authorial intent the main locus of one’s critical endeavor, the metric with which success is measured. The purpose of criticism is not to provide an exegesis of what an author intended, after all, and accuracy in this regard should not be the thing that distinguishes adequate critics from excellent ones.

If this seems a rather subtle point, then it is because this is a very subtle point indeed. At the core of it lies the distinction between two related but very different questions: “what did the author mean?” and “what does the text say?”. This might seem a very semantic point, but the methods one would go about finding answers to these questions differ greatly.

The first question suggests a method of biographical and historical analysis, which compares the particulars of a text to various ideas and sentiments floating about in the general environs of the person holding the pen. Such an analysis can, as mentioned above, be performed to great effect, but it requires a very careful hand and an even more careful eye for detail; reconstructing past mindsets is a skill rare indeed. Most of it comes down to sentiment, a thing that can not be proven definitively one way or another, but which through the effort of skilled criticism can be conveyed. The authors themselves can, of course, simply opt to tell us what the whole idea was, were we but to ask them.

The second question is more immediate, and easier to get to work on in a methodological fashion. In essence, it consists of empirically analyzing the words of a text to see what they do, and how they go about doing it. This, too, requires a keen awareness and attention to detail, especially when it comes to those aspiring to critique a poem, where placing a word this way rather than that can imply a world of difference (and different worlds). The poem performs this intricate dance of implication as it is written, and a careful critic can tease out what’s what by means of looking very closely.

The fallacy, according to Wimsatt and Beardsley, lies in conflating the two questions and ending up dismissing the efforts to answer the one by reference to how they would have answered the other. Which seems abstruse in the abstract, but by virtue of the 70 years of popular culture taking place after the date of publication, we have the advantage of a very concrete example to straighten the whole deal out. The time of Rowling has come.

Rowling, famously, proclaimed that Dumbledore (benevolent headmaster and dubious pedagogue) was in fact gay the whole time. This is a clear statement of intent, solidly and unequivocally answering the question of what she meant Dumbledore to be. A careful reading of the books, however, finds scant evidence of the proclaimed gaiety, to such an extent that there is no textual evidence whatsoever to be found. Which actualizes the second question in a very dramatic fashion, and forces us to confront the fact that author and text say different things.

One option would of course be to simply accept the proclamation and read Dumbledore as gay from now on. A straightforward solution, but one that lacks the quality of being critical, or (given the lack of in-text occurrences where it would have made a dramatic difference) of even being meaningful. Accepting the oracular proclamation answers the question, but it does not further our understanding of anything. Critically, it is a dead end.

A more interesting option would be to interrogate the significance of a character being written in such a way that their sexuality does not seem to matter in the slightest, to such a degree that it can flip-flop back and forth without anything changing. This, I reckon, is a more interesting question to ponder, and one which furthers our understanding of (among other things) representation in popular media. By sticking to the text as written, we can get to work on the important stuff.

There is more to the intentional fallacy, however. The fate of criticism itself hangs in the balance. If a critic, after painstakingly walking us through a body of work, concludes that it says something very specific, something which fundamentally contradict the professed values of the author, then this conclusion should stand on the basis of the critical demonstration that lead to said conclusion. It is a question of the second type, answered by a methodology suited for that kind of question. Given this, the author should not then be able to make the whole thing go away by simply saying “no it doesn’t”.

Such a state of things would render the whole critical endeavor meaningless. Which, as fallacies goes, is a big one.

Wimsatt & Beardsley: The intentional fallacy

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